Move Over Millennials, Here Comes Generation Z: Understanding the ‘New Realists’ Who Are Building the Future

May 1, 2015

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As marketers try to comprehend millennials (Generation Y), while also keeping tabs on Generation X and the baby boomers, a new cohort of consumers is rapidly emerging: Generation Z.

Roughly defined as those born since 1996, Gen Z is the group of under-20-year-olds, the first generation born into a digital world. The next generation of trendsetters — representing more than 25 percent of the U.S. population (larger than the boomers or millennials, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) — is already beginning to put its stamp on the world.

I call this Generation Z the “New Realists” because their outlook on the future is grounded in sobering events and conditions such as 9/11, the Great Recession, the war on terrorism, various mass school shootings and climate change, as well as mega-shifts in once-taboo issues such as gay marriage and legalized marijuana. And this is all in a 24/7 digital world where kids have instant access to content through their mobile devices.

Defining the New Realist generation

Many of today’s young adults will recall the fear and stress of their parents’ unemployment during the height of the Great Recession in 2009, when 15 million people were out of work. As a result, according to a Magid Generational Strategies’ report, “The First Generation of the Twenty-First Century,” New Realists are less likely than previous generations to believe in the American Dream. Another observation — based on the teens I know, including my 12- and 14-year-old daughters: It’s not uncommon to see young people brag about their treasure hunts for upscale brands at budget-minded stores such as T.J. Maxx, Goodwill and local consignment shops. In fact, it’s considered a badge of honor.

While many Gen Zers were too young to comprehend 9/11 when it happened, they’ll repeat the stories of where they were, just as their boomer parents and grandparents shared stories of where they were when President Kennedy was shot. And while the boomers practiced nuclear-attack drills at school in the 1950s and 1960s, this generation of young people has had to undergo lockdown drills to prepare for a possible mass shooting.

Is it any wonder then, based on events of the past 10 years, that today’s kids gravitate toward such books as “The Hunger Games,” “The Maze Runner” and “Divergent,” where teen heroes are placed in the role of fighting rulers of dystopian societies?

If the activism of 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is an indicator, Generation Z may be the next to take on the world’s injustices. Business Insider reported a study by New York-based marketing agency Sparks & Honey, which determined that one in four Gen Zers volunteer. So it isn’t surprising that the social-change organization, whose motto is “ makes the world suck less,” is popular among young people.

Discovering the media trends of Generation Z

American culture gravitates toward youth, and at some point companies, government agencies and nonprofits will move on from all things millennial to the New Realist generation in search of the next hot media trend.

Karen Murray, principal of Cottage 8, a Minneapolis-based media-strategy firm, says: “Generation Z is all about mobile — media on their terms, where, what and when they want it. Compared to millennials, they were not raised on traditional media and are using technology much earlier and faster to communicate whatever and wherever they want.”

The key here isn’t so much about the prevalence of technology, but about easy access to information. According to a Pew Research report, “Teens and Technology 2013,” 78 percent of today’s teenagers have mobile phones, of which 74 percent can access the Internet.

Along similar lines, while Generation Z still reads traditional printed books, they’re just as likely to download a book from Kindle or to access textbooks from school-supplied iPads. During my 12-year-old’s recent birthday party, I asked the dozen girls in attendance what their favorite TV shows were. Many said they like to watch videos created by other kids on YouTube and access their favorite Disney and Nickelodeon programs on their smartphones and tablets.

In terms of social media, my daughters, as well as my Generation Z nieces and nephew, tell me that Facebook is dead and Instagram and Twitter are the cool social media platforms today. These reactions correspond with a recent Piper Jaffray study, “Taking Stock with Teens,” about the purchasing and media habits of 7, 200 U.S. teens. The study found that “Instagram and Twitter are the two most-used social media sites, implying teens are increasingly visual and sound-bite communicators.” Now that they have the digital tools to create their own media based on their shared experiences and purchases, “this generation of teens is moving beyond media that is fed to them,” said Steph Wissink, co-director of research and a senior research analyst with Piper Jaffray.

Communicating with the New Realists

Here are some tips on how your organization should consider communicating with Generation Z:

  • Speak in terms of value: Based on their experience with the Great Recession, New Realists want to know they’re getting a good value for their dollar. While they may be ready to upgrade to the next iPhone, Generation Z will shop hard, both in stores and online, for the best deals.
  • Recognize their ambitions: The New Realists are under immense pressure from their Gen X and boomer parents to gain professional work experience earlier in life. They’re being pushed to participate in Model United Nations, robotics and other extracurricular activities that build work-related skills, as well as to take advanced placement (AP) classes to get a leg up on college. They’ll also be seeking internships and mentorships much earlier than millennials did.
  • Give them shareable content and tools to create their own: Speak to Generation Z in bursts of communication that they can easily share with others. Use symbols, video and graphics to complement the story. Look for opportunities to let them express themselves through your brand with videos they shoot themselves. Be prepared to tell your story across multiple screens.
  • Realize they’re collaborative, but also independent and entrepreneurial: The Great Recession has taught Generation Z to be independent. But because they regularly collaborate by using Google Docs and Google Drive in school, Generation Zers also understand how to work together. At the same time, these New Realists have an entrepreneurial desire, after seeing their parents and older siblings struggle in the workforce. And for many, entrepreneurship means an opportunity to do something good for the world, following examples set by organizations such as Feed My Starving Children and TOMS Shoes.
  • Be honest: The New Realist generation wants its news straight. Having watched older siblings graduate from college only to move back home with no job, Generation Z abhors corporate spin and gov-speak. They also roll their eyes at “oldsplain,” when millennials, Gen Xers and boomers tell them how things used to be.

Dan Schawbel, author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success,” noted in a Sept. 16 CBS News interview that the top leadership qualities Generation Z seeks are honesty, transparency and an authentic workplace environment.

Organizations should begin to plan for the New Realist generation, if they haven’t already.

“Generation Z wants to be part of something,” said Wissink. “They want to do something real, and they have the digital tools to make it happen now. They’re starting businesses with Kickstarter, raising money to draw attention to a cause or fight an injustice, and at the end of the day they want to share it with everyone they know. This generation is breaking down barriers. And if the tools don’t exist to implement their plans, they’ll invent the app.”

Stephen Dupont, APR

Stephen Dupont, APR, is vice president of public relations and branded content for Pocket Hercules (, a brand-marketing firm based in Minneapolis. He blogs at Contact him at


Chuck Hansen says:

I have a 19-year-old son and a 17-year-old daughter, and this describes them and their world view very well. Nice job.

May 20, 2015

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